Beijing’s condition is holding up the signing of a bilateral labor agreement with Israel.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s plan to bring Chinese construction workers to Israel in order to accelerate the pace of residential building in Israel has hit a diplomatic snag, in the form of Beijing’s demand that the workers not be employed in West Bank Jewish settlements, purportedly out of concern for their safety.
China’s demand is holding up the implementation of a cabinet resolution from about a year ago that provided for a boost in the number of foreign construction workers, initially to 8,000 and later to 15,000, as part of a plan to increase the housing supply and in consequence to decrease home prices. Even the 8,000 figure has not been reached, rendering the program meaningless in effect for now.
The Chinese and Israeli governments have negotiated over the employment of Chinese workers in Israel for a number of years. The agreement would replace the current arrangement, in which private companies contract directly with Chinese firms that supply the labor, an arrangement that has resulted in allegations of serious violations of labor laws.
According to statements collected prior to 2010 from Chinese construction workers in Israel by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants nongovernmental organization, laborers from China have been required to pay commissions of up to $30,000 for an Israeli visa, in violation of the law. The need to repay the sum in effect made the workers hostages of their employers and has gave Israel a reputation for allowing the violation of migrant workers’ rights, to a degree that would constitute human trafficking.
In light of the low score that Israel received in this regard from the U.S. State Department as well as the filing of petitions with the Israeli High Court of Justice over labor practices involving foreign workers, in 2011 the Israeli government decided that foreign workers in the construction and agricultural sectors would only be brought here by the government, through bilateral agreements with the workers’ governments. The High Court petitions challenged the practice of private Israeli employers bringing in Chinese workers directly and the illegal visa commissions the workers have been charged.
Since 2011, Israel has signed bilateral agreements with Thailand and Sri Lanka regarding farmworkers and with Bulgaria, Moldova and Romania for construction workers.
Negotiations over similar agreements with Nepal and Sri Lanka are also currently under way for home health care workers.
The agreements already provide for the arrival in Israel of over 12,000 workers, and the Israeli government has expressed satisfaction that the bilateral pacts have worked out well for all parties involved and have protected the foreign workers’ rights. The fact that the workers come to Israel unburdened by debts over commissions and with access to a hotline for any complaints that they may have, make it possible to protect their interests.
The most notable government that has not yet signed a bilateral agreement at this point, despite great pressure from Israeli builders, is China. At the beginning of the process in 2011, Israel preferred not to engage in talks with China, due to the practice of Chinese government agencies of charging the workers commissions and concern about corruption in local governments in China. Since then, Beijing has cracked down on government corruption and has shown greater interest in an agreement regulating the terms for Chinese workers in Israel.
As a result, Israel renewed the talks with China around 18 months ago and the main points of a labor pact have presumably been settled, including a clause on commissions. Beijing has insisted that local governments continue to collect commission from each worker equal to one month’s salary for each year spent working in Israel. Chinese workers generally come to Israel for five years and earn an average monthly salary of between 5,000 shekels and 7,000 shekels (roughly $1,300 to $1,800), bringing the average commission to around $6,000 for each worker for the entire five-year period.
Under Israeli law, commissions are prohibited and labor contractors are permitted only to demand that foreign workers repay the cost of their flight to Israel. Israel has relented under China’s insistence, however, on the condition that the commission be paid by the Israeli contractor rather than the Chinese employee. It is thought that the Israel Builders Association has agreed to the provision. But in a statement the professional organization said it had not promised “to pay $6,000 for every foreign construction worker who comes from China through the bilateral agreement.”
Harm to Israel’s image
Despite the apparent resolution of the last hurdle to an agreement with China, it has not been signed, apparently due to China’s demand that the workers not be employed beyond Israel’s pre-1967 borders, meaning primarily the West Bank, purportedly out of concern for their safety. At this point, the Israeli government is refusing to accede to the demand.
Although the Israel government could set its own policy regarding the employment of Chinese workers in the absence of a bilateral agreement with China, such a move would put the government in a difficult situation with the High Court of Justice and with the U.S. State Department, and also engender stiff opposition from Israeli officials, For the past decade or so, officials at the finance, interior, economy and housing ministries have led efforts to reduce the number of foreign agriculture and construction workers.
Since 2011, this policy has been made part of a decision providing that all foreign workers coming into the country should do so based on bilateral agreements with foreign governments to head off the prospect of human trafficking. A retreat from such a policy would cause damage to Israel’s reputation and harm efforts to encourage more Israelis to work in agriculture and construction. For its part, the Foreign Ministry said efforts to come to an agreement with the Chinese government continue.
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